Deconstructing Experience: Life Beyond the TOLL BOOTH

Kenan, the film's protagonist, on his downward emotional spiral: Nothing like a pretty girl and a nice car to obsess over.

Kenan, the film's protagonist, on his emotional downward spiral. Nothing like a pretty girl and a nice car to obsess over.

Intern Andreas Streuli puts his academic pursuits of film and philosophy to work: an interpretation of Global Lens 2012 film TOLL BOOTH, (dir. Tolga Karaçelik, Turkey) tracing the emotional development of the protagonist, to look at the meaning of the film as a whole.

Despite being produced halfway around the world, we are confronted with a film with many parallels to our own lives— it is proof that cinema can be universally understood and appreciated.

“Sir, meteors are heading our way,” warns a newscaster in the opening shot of the film.

This opening is a restless composition created by a flashing light emanating from the living room television screen. The image continues into the shaky, almost turbulent credit sequence that introduces the daily grind of a tollbooth operator, suggesting a world in flux (it is threatened by an imminent meteorological disaster, after all).

For all the tension created at the film’s outset, the film’s protagonist, Kenan, could not seem less engaged.  Referred to by his coworkers as “robot,” everything about him seems wholly detached, as he refuses to interact with either his coworkers or customers on even the slightest emotional level, seemingly content to proceed though his day in a mechanical fashion.

A dichotomy is implied between Kenan and the world around him—maybe he really is ambivalent to it all, or maybe, just maybe, he is on the verge of imploding.

Kenan and his father, bound by unhappiness.

As the film progresses, the viewer charts Kenan’s psychological decline before he eventually has what appears to be a nervous breakdown near the film’send.  By examining Kenan’s psychology over the course of the film—from an apathetic tollbooth operator to a man suffering an emotional collapse—one can extrapolate several thematic elements, namely how and when Kenan chooses to derive meaning from conscious experience and how this may have contributed to his ultimate collapse.

With a window into Kenan’s psychology, the viewer is able to see that Kenan is not a “robot,” but, in fact, a man dealing with complicated and deeply internalized personal issues—in particular, two apparent obsessions.

One of these is revealed by the flashbacks to his childhood and explains at least in part his secret nighttime project of fixing a white broken down car—a project he undertakes at night so that his volatile father never finds out.  Why fixing this car is so important to him is never fully revealed, but it becomes clear that he invests quite a bit of personal worth in successfully completing the project.

Kenan’s other major “obsession” begins midway through the film when he is transferred to an isolated tollbooth station where hardly any cars ever pass.  When a white car breaks down just in front of the tollbooth, Kenan soon assists the driver: a very alluring young woman  Kenan’s interest in the woman is obvious from the moment he first sees her, and he is significantly friendlier to her than all other characters in the film.  When the car finally does start she drives away and yells that she will be back the same tomorrow, eliciting a rare smile from Kenan.

Despite her repeated attempts to date him, Kenan hands Nurgül money, to assert their relationship remain professional.

His excitement is apparent—he not only confides interest in the woman to a friend but has several fantasies of being with her.  Her expected return to his tollbooth each day becomes something to look forward to, a bright point in the horizon of an otherwise dim day.

It is partially because Kenan chooses to invest so much energy in these two obsessions that he ultimately collapses.  “Chooses” may be the wrong word, as both seem to have “become” fixations involuntarily without his choosing. It may be just because he is obsessed by ungrounded passions that he ultimately collapses; while his freedom may be limited in some respects, he seems to neglect that he has the authority to choose when and from what to create meaning.

A romance with a girl who drives though a tollbooth once a day is entirely ungrounded, and fixing a childhood car, however personally symbolic it may be, clearly does little to change the present—both obsessions are ultimately self-destructive. It is not simply what Kenan chooses to obsess over that tells the audience about his condition, but what he does not obsess over (and even what he flatly rejects).

For example, Kenan repeatedly neglects his father’s caretaker Nurgül, an extremely kind and gracious woman who appears to take a real interest in Kenan despite his coldness.  In another scene, a car pulls up with a lonely and exhausted driver who attempts to strike up a conversation with Kenan, expressing genuine empathy to his plight—a rare and touching humanistic moment—to which Kenan reacts ever-unpleasantly.

It is in these moments that Kenan forfeits his volitional authority. When he tells his father in a heated argument: “This is who I am.  I am a tollbooth attendant,” he says it so convincingly that even he really does believe it.

Kenan ultimately represents a character who allows himself to be defined by his profession and his involuntary obsessions, which eventually contributes to, and perhaps causes, his psychological collapse.

This is reminiscent of something the late novelist David Foster Wallace once said: “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Independent world cinema not only has the power to teach individuals about distant cultures, but ultimately about ourselves, too.  A compelling narrative can induce introspection. While Kenan’s experience as a Turkish toll booth operator may seem divorced from our own, who hasn’t dealt with the banal and repetitiveness of the workday, the burden of familial responsibilities or the difficulty in curbing unrealistic expectations?

The challenge then becomes what we can learn from it.


GFI intern Andreas Streuli currently attends Wesleyan University where he is studying film and philosophy.

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